Sydney startup STEMN is the GitHub for rocket scientists

- May 11, 2015 5 MIN READ

You’ve probably heard of GitHub, a free web-based code sharing and publishing service founded in 2008 by Tom Preston-Werner, Chris Wanstrath, and PJ Hyett and popularly used by open source developers. GitHub, as well as its competitors and spin-offs, have enabled easier collaboration between developers.

GitHub, in particular, does this through three key features: fork, pull request and merge. Where before developers wanting to contribute to an open source project had to manually download the project’s source code, make changes, create a list of changes (also known as a ‘patch’) and then email the patch to the project’s owner or manager to evaluate, GitHub allows developers to copy a repository from one user’s account to another, make changes and send a ‘pull request’ to the project owner. Should the owner choose to merge the changes, they can do so at the click of a button.

But what about rocket scientists?

According to Sydney-based startup STEMN, rocket scientists are often isolated in their pursuits, unhelped by the lack of collaborative platforms built solely for this market. As such, STEMN has created a platform that’s essentially ‘the GitHub for rocket scientists’, at least until it becomes the GitHub for engineers broadly.

Founded in December 2014 by Jackson Delahunt, David Revay and Jack Yeh (featured image), STEMN is aims to increase collaboration between scientists and engineers. Delahunt, who is a computer scientist, said that many people in these fields work offline and in a decentralised manner, meaning that two (or more) people can be solving the same problem in two different places and not know about each other or have any chance of collaborating.

“Our aim is to give them a place where they can share what they’re working on and find others who are doing the same thing. This way, they can collaborate on engineering projects … Services like GitHub has accelerated software development massively. We want to do the same for the physical world of engineers,” said Delahunt.

Once users post their projects on STEMN, Delahunt said that, invariably, someone else will come along and want to do something similar. Although it’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact number of people there are in the global science and engineering community, it would still be safe to say that two or more people are likely, at some point, to come up with the same idea. STEMN’s open contribution model allows these people to find each other and contribute to the success of projects.

Delahunt presented the drone community as an example. “These are hobbyists who think it’s really cool to have a UAV – a thing which has rotors, a remote control and can fly. Kids used to have remote controlled cars; now they can fly drones with cameras on them. The US army invest massively in drones for war. Then there are people working on better drone designs at home and sending them off to factories where they’re being made. These are superior drones; thousands and thousands of man hours have gone into a new design.

“People are putting in the hours out of passion. The result is an absolute explosion and innovation in the space. So we say, you could be the next drone; just start something and grow from there.”

The reason for STEMN’s initial focus on aerospace engineers is simply because Revay and Yeh are both aerospace engineers. Delahunt explained that the problem STEMN is trying to solve – i.e. collaboration amongst scientists and engineers – is especially pertinent to people in the space industry.

“Space is very niche. [Aerospace engineers] are all over the world and they can’t find other people to collaborate with. Yet they’re the ones fighting one of the hardest frontiers in terms of engineering,” Delahunt added.

Aerospace engineers are the most intelligent people in the world, so it would be understandable if they were to keep their projects secret. Delahunt admitted that some people are quite protective of their work, but once the benefits of collaboration is presented to them, they’re willing to share their projects and collaborate with others to accelerate progress.

“If you put your projects up on GitHub, you can end up getting hundreds of contributors. Ultimately [the project owner] wants to see their ideas succeed. But he doesn’t always have enough spare hours to solve the problem. If they have 100 other people who put in 10 hours each, then that’s another 1,000 extra hours put towards their idea. Once the engineers realise that, they’re open to collaborating,” said Delahunt.

Whereas GitHub makes its money by selling merchandise and by offering multi-tiered subscriptions for individuals and companies who want to own private repositories, STEMN wants to keep its service entirely free for the end user and generate revenue through recruitment.

“Our users are our lifeline so we wouldn’t want to make them pay for the service,” said Delahunt.

Delahunt said that once STEMN exits its closed beta phase and there are a substantial number of users, the startup will be able to gather information about specific industries and connect users to potential employers. Companies looking to hire outstanding engineers will have a place to find them or they can use STEMN to showcase the kinds of projects they’re working on to attract engineers who might be interested in contributing to those projects. Another option, according to Delahunt, is for STEMN to connect users to hardware sellers. If a project, for instance, requires particular equipment, users will have the ability to access relevant providers and purchase that equipment through a few clicks.

STEMN has been primarily bootstrapped to date, though has received a grant of $5,000 from the INCUBATE accelerator programme. Delahunt said they want to retain as much equity as possible for the time being, but is open to the prospect of raising funds at a later stage.

Delahunt believes once STEMN has sufficiently solved the problem for one engineering discipline, the product will become easily applicable to other fields like electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, and so on.

“Once we’ve solved the problem for the space industry, we will look to replicate the model in others. There is so much opportunity for growth,” said Delahunt.

STEMN has partnered with organisations like the Australian Youth Aerospace Organisation and NASA to identify people who will benefit the most from the service. In fact, in April, STEMN partnered with NASA to encourage participants in the NASA SpaceApps Challenge (a space-themed hackathon) to document their projects on STEMN. In the challenge, participants are required to use NASA’s data to create something innovative. But once the hackathon is over, many ideas disappear.

“Great ideas just get lost. We wanted to allow those ideas to get documented on the site so they have persistence. Other people can come along and continue where the previous people left off. This way, the idea never dies,” Delahunt explained.

This was a great growth opportunity for STEMN. The startup saw a surge in the number of signups on the weekend of the challenge. It also allowed STEMN to get feedback on its solution.

At the moment, there are three full-time co-founders and a part-timer working on STEMN. All are engineers; and despite being entrepreneurially-driven engineers, Delahunt admitted that, at some point, they will need to recruit a community manager because community development is the most difficult area for them.

“We’re nerds and geeks; leave us in a dark room with computers and we’ll sort out the hardware side. But talking to people is tough, so we find community development to be the most challenging aspect for us,” said Delahunt.

It’s not that guys behind STEMN are shy. But creating technology is meaningless unless there are users who get value from it; and getting traction requires selling a vision.

“Inspiring people can be tricky. You need to be a good speaker and tell a good story. You need to be able sell your vision,” said Delahunt.

At the moment, Yeh manages social media and communications, which, as it turns out, is vastly different from rocket science.

“It’s a learning experience for everyone which is the best part about it. If you don’t get exposed to different things, you don’t develop new skills. Every challenge you come across only makes you grow,” said Delahunt.

“Once we open STEMN up globally, we anticipate a lot of growth. It’ll certainly be overwhelming for just the three of us, so we’ll look to bring in people specifically around social media and community engagement.”

The team is currently open to feedback and discussions with people who are willing to contribute to STEMN in any way.